Bright College Days by
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Most people associate the word “tutor” with someone hired to give individual remedial instruction in a course that one is having trouble with. However at Harvard, following the model of Oxford and Cambridge, students have tutorials in their field of concentration in their second, third, and fourth years. Sophomore tutorial is in a small group, like a seminar; junior tutorial is individual or perhaps with one other student; and then senior tutorial is devoted to writing a thesis.

While all three of my tutors were important to my academic career, the most unforgettable one was my sophomore tutor, Doris Kearns. She was a bright young assistant professor in the Government Department, who had received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1968. This was the academic year 1969-70, so it must have been only her second year teaching. Her Wikipedia page tells me she was born in 1943, meaning she was 26 when the tutorial started, which is amazing to me, because she seemed decades older and wiser than we were at 19 (well, the others were 19, I was only 18 because I skipped a grade). I don’t know when the Featured Image was taken, I took it from an article about her written in 2014, but except for the wrinkles around the eyes and mouth, it looks exactly the way I remember her.

There were six or seven of us in the tutorial, all sophomores, and only one other girl as far as I remember. Her name was Ellen, and she was fabulously wealthy because her father had developed some of the first enclosed shopping malls in the US, as well as the entire town of Columbia, Maryland. Ellen had the same shade of red hair as Doris, and they bonded over that. They also gushed over each other’s purses and clothes, whereas I didn’t carry a purse and tended to wear the Cliffie uniform of a turtleneck and blue jeans most of the year. As a result, I never became close with Doris like Ellen did, but then, I don’t think any of the guys did either.

I remember almost nothing about what we read or discussed in that tutorial. My chief memory is that Doris told lots of stories about Lyndon Johnson, because she had been a White House Fellow in 1967 and had gotten pretty close to him. How close? We always wondered. She told us that she used to go swimming in the White House pool with him, and that she was chosen for this honor because she was the only female there who didn’t mind getting her hair wet. There were lots of press reports of Johnson swimming naked in the WH pool, but we could never get Doris to tell us whether she swam naked too.

After that year, I never saw or talked to Doris again, but I have followed her via the media for the past 49 years. In 1975, she married Dick Goodwin, whom I had met in 1968 when we were both working for the McCarthy campaign. Dick, a former speechwriter for JFK, had managed McCarthy’s campaign in New Hampshire, then jumped ship to Bobby Kennedy when he entered the race, but came back to us after Bobby was assassinated. I had had a huge crush on Dick that summer, deeming him my second favorite person in the world after McCarthy himself, and so it pained me a little when he married Doris. (Sort of like when Paul McCartney married Linda Eastman.) I was sure the marriage wouldn’t last, but it did. They were married for 43 years, until his death in 2018. After their marriage she used the name Doris Kearns Goodwin, but to me she will always be just Doris Kearns.

Doris has written many successful books about American presidents, including LBJ (no surprise), JFK, FDR, and Lincoln. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on FDR. Her book on Lincoln was the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie Lincoln. But the only book of hers that I actually bought and read is Wait Till Next Year, which is her memoir about growing up in the 1940s and ’50s in Brooklyn and rooting for the Dodgers until they moved to California. (“Wait til next year” is what the Dodger fans always said at the end of every season, when they didn’t win the World Series.) It was a wonderful book, and it turned out that she is such an expert on baseball that she was in the Ken Burns documentary Baseball. Watching that documentary, when Doris appeared on the screen the first time, I screamed with excitement, “That’s my tutor!” I was proud of my association with her.

She even rose above the bad times. In 2002, there was a plagiarism controversy, with assertions being made that passages in two of her books had been taken from other books. Her response was that she had “scrupulously” footnoted the material, but perhaps had failed to provide quotation marks. The scandal might have ruined the career of a more timid person, but Doris held her head high and refused to be cowed. Since that time, she has written three more extremely successful books, including the one about Lincoln. Her most recent book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, about four US presidents who dealt with terrible national crises, was on the New York Times Best Seller List in 2018. At the age of 76, she shows no sign of slowing down.

So, did she have an influence on my life? Not in any definable way. But she was certainly unforgettable, and I’m glad I knew her!

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    She sounds like a fascinating person, Suzy. Now her house in Concord that she shared with Dick Goodwin for years and years is on the market. It was featured in the Globe a few weeks ago. It looks gorgeous, but evidently, she thinks it is time for her to downsize. She is a frequent commentator on our local news, so I have an affinity for her too.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for telling me about the Globe article, I just found it and looked at all the pictures of the house, which is listed for a mere $1.9 million. I love that they turned the 3-car garage into a library, but I wonder where they parked their cars. I would so love to go to an open house there before it is sold.

  2. Right on, Suzy. Doris was a tutor in Dunster House, arriving midyear my sophomore year. I got to know her pretty well over the next couple of years – I took her course. She also wrote law school recommendations for me. Yes, absolutely unforgettable. Turns out that she and Dick had a son who was in my son Charlie’s class and both lived in Winthrop House. Don’t know if they knew one another. At commencement when I scanned the program for the Winthrop ceremony I spotted a familiar family name: Kearns Goodwin. With her red hair it wasn’t hard to find her. We had a nice few minutes chatting. Don’t know if she really remembered me but she certainly played the part. Good story. (And I commend the song title title.)

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, the tutorial was in Dunster House, which was about as far away from Comstock as you could get and still be on campus. I grumbled about that, since we didn’t have the shuttle bus that they have nowadays. How great that you got to know her well enough that she wrote recommendations for you. And that you saw her again when both of you had sons graduating together. Thanks for adding your memories, Tom.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    A terrific story Suzy. Of course, I remember you talking/rhapsodizing about Doris (if I may) when you were in her tutorial and all her LBJ stories when we were in college — and I also knew the Ellen of whom you spoke (yes; nice clothes). To this day, despite all of Doris’ fame as a historian/author, baseball expert and TV talking head, my very first thought of her is still “Suzy’s tutor.” So your choice of her for an “unforgettable” prompt is hardly surprising, and most enjoyable.

    In fact, I was on the Shuttle to DC last year and ended up both sitting near her at the gate at Logan and on the plane. I was sorely tempted to go up to her and both offer my condolences on her husband’s then-recent death and mention that I was a college pal of yours and see/hope the light would go on. But, she was clearly engrossed in her reading — I think she was going to be on “Meet the Press” the next day — and I do not know her at all. Plus, in my Zelig-like existence, I’ve been around enough famous people to know how annoying it can be for them to be approached by gushing strangers, so I kept my peace.

    • Suzy says:

      Nice to learn that you remember me rhapsodizing about her when I was in her tutorial. I don’t recall talking about her, but then my memories from that time are somewhat impaired by the mind-altering substances I consumed.

      I do recall your telling me about being on the shuttle to DC with her, and I was disappointed that you didn’t talk to her. Not that I think she would have remembered me, but she might have pretended she did, which would have been cool.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, your unforgettable person is someone I deeply admire. I’m a bit jealous you actually knew her, as I think she is a remarkable pundit and author, Thanks for sharing some personal details about her life,

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks Laurie. I have now learned, from his comment on this story, that Tom knew her better than I did, because he lived in Dunster House where she was a tutor, so I’m as envious of him as you are of me!

  5. Marian says:

    Wow, it’s fun to read about a well-known person who is memorable for you. I find it fascinating that, like me, you don’t exactly remember what you studied with Doris, but remember the person. I think there definitely is a theme in most of our stories this week.

  6. Wow! What a wonderful portrait of a remarkable woman! I’ve read several of her works and love the human touch she brings to her subjects. In a way, your warm writing style reminds me of Kearns’. And I loved the tasty flourishes you added regarding the coming and going of an intriguing group of writers and statesmen. I had no idea she had been with Johnson during that troubling time. I’ve done a great deal of research on that time, including a stint at the Johnson Library in Austin. I’ll have to check between the lines of my research for any signs of executive skinny dipping! Really a beautiful portrait, personal and comprehensive. Thanks!

    • Suzy says:

      Thank you for your lovely comment. There is a lot of documentation of LBJ swimming nude in the WH pool, including a story where he made a group of journalists from Look Magazine (all male) take off their clothes and swim with him to get the interview. But I doubt you could find anything in writing about Doris in the pool!

  7. Nice one. I admire Doris K.G. very much as well. Loved Team of Rivals, her book about Lincoln, and always love seeing her in documentaries and in TV interviews. So well-informed, such a good storyteller and enthusiast for history. Now excuse me while I pour a drink and try to expel from my brain the image of LBJ swimming naked in the White House pool!

  8. First of all, I never saw a picture of Doris looking anywhere near that young–that was fun in itself! Second, I don’t know anyone else who had a tutor who became famous–i’m a bit jealous! Third, it was really fun to hear the details about the dynamics of the tutorial, but then the dynamics of your relation to her (from a distance) over the subsequent decades. Thanks for sharing. And thank Dana for writing on this prompt, enabling me to discover your story.

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